Although responsibility for education in the United Kingdom rests with the central government, schools are mainly administered by local education authorities. Virtually the entire adult population is literate. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 16. In 1997, 5,328,219 students attended Britain's 23,306 primary schools. Primary teachers numbered 283,492, and student-to-teacher ratio stood at 19 to 1. As of 1999, 99% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 94% of those eligible attended secondary school. The majority of primary students attend state schools that are owned and maintained by local education authorities. A small minority attend voluntary schools mostly run by the churches and also financed by the local authorities.
Since 1989, the government has introduced a "National School Curriculum" in England and Wales comprised of four key stages: five to seven (infants); 7 to 11 (juniors); 11 to 14 (pre-GCSE); and 14 to 16 (GCSE). Similar reforms are being introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The main school examination, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is taken in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at around the age of 16. A separate exam system exists in Scotland. Of the 2,500 registered independent schools, the largest and most important (Winchester, Eton, Harrow, and others) are known in England as "public schools." Many have centuries of tradition behind them and are world famous. In 1997, 6,548,786 students were enrolled in secondary schools, with 464,134 teachers.
Including the Open University, a nonresidential institution whose courses are conducted by television and radio broadcasts and correspondence texts, Britain had 47 universities in the 1990s (compared with 17 in 1945). As a result of legislation, nearly all polytechnics have become universities and started awarding their own degrees in 1993. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge date from the 12th and 13th centuries, respectively; the Scottish universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh from the 15th and 16th centuries. Besides the universities, there are more than 800 other institutions of higher education, including technical, art, and commercial colleges run by local authorities. The proportion of young people entering university has risen from one in eight in 1980 to one in five in 1990. By 1996, all institutions of higher education had a combined enrollment of 1,820,849 students; teaching staff totaled 89,241.
National policy stipulates that no person should be excluded from higher education by lack of means. More than 90% of students in higher education hold awards from public or private funds. In 1997, the government began to reconsider its policy of cost-free tuition by announcing that students would become responsible for some of the expense. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 4.7% of GDP.